Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
by Kenneth Oppel
I just recommended Kenneth Oppel’s new children’s book, Half Brother, to my 86 year-old grandmother. It is that good.
I knew it must be good when I heard that Violet got in trouble at school for reading too much. At home I was envious of her complete absorption in the book, but also excited because I knew I would get to read it next. I asked her, “Is it ‘Hunger-Games-Good’?” She just grunted and waved me off. “Violet if you don’t answer me I’m going to take the book away.” She looked up at me and said, “Oh yeah, it’s good. Can I just please read to the end of this chapter?”
Later she told me she loved it because it made her feel like she was the main character, thirteen year-old Ben. When I got my turn, I felt the same way. Now I’m curious if my grandmother will feel likewise. Any book that can make a ten-year old girl, a forty-year old mother, and an eighty-six-year old great-grandmother feel like a thirteen year-old boy is impressive.
There are stories that are compelling, and there are books that are insightful and complex. Half Brother is a masterpiece that combines the best of both. A page-turner for sure, we are dropped into a world of being new in junior high school while having a stormy relationship with a driven father. Just the thought of it makes most grown-ups cringe. Add on top of that the complexity of developing a close bond with a species so near to our own, but still clearly animal – and you have one of the best children’s books I have ever read.
I would not recommend this book to children younger than ten years old. The complexity of relationships might be harder for younger children to grasp, and there are some sexual references. The sexual references are not explicit, and they are appropriate to what a thirteen year-old boy would say and experience but some parents might be uncomfortable with younger children reading them. This is one of those books that would be a pleasure to read so you can judge for yourself.
Dirt Road Home by Watt Key
When my students finished Alabama Moon, Watt Key’s popular first novel, they all said they hoped Key would write another book so they could find out what happend with Hal. Well he did. As Moon was headed off to a regular life with long-lost relatives, Hal, the buddy he escaped from the “home” for boys with, is looking at the possibility of spending time in a tougher boys’ home that turns out to be more like a real prison.
Hal finds himself in this boys’ prison in Key’s second book and it is run by mean and corrupt adults who allow a viscious gang environment to thrive. Hal, who usually has no difficulty taking on trouble, will only get out if he stays out of trouble. Since that is virtually impossible, his only hope is to rely on friendship and to find a way to outwit those who want to keep him down.
Like Alabama Moon, this book is a compelling read driven by the reader’s empathy for a strong main character, constant action, and by lines clearly drawn between the light and the dark. While Alabama felt like an entirely new hero to literature, Hal is a more familiar one–a smart, brave kid with a good heart and a childhood that worked against him but that he is driven to get beyond. Key’s books are about boys and are written for boys in middle school or higher. Yet I enjoy them (I’m well past my school years and female) and look forward to the next one.
The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff
Set in rural nineteenth century England, this book relates the story of girl on the cusp of womanhood who gets a good look at the pre-ordained life spreading out in front of her and makes the decision to run–with her horse and her uninvited misfit of an adopted younger brother who has reasons of his own to run. She makes the choice to suffer hardships, as long as they are of her own making, rather than be less than what she thinks she can be. And suffer she does; though a reader might expect reward to come from all the suffering, this book does not take the expected turns–this young woman who wants to control her own destiny learns the difference between when she owes her attentiveness to others in her life and when she does not. She has to become ever stronger.
The Bride’s Farewell is a good book for high school girls. It is of a reading level that middle school girls can handle, but though there is no graphically inappropriate content for younger girls, there are themes underlying the main one of making one’s own way in a difficult world that are fairly mature, like the importance of knowing when a man will be a good one to trust your heart to. It has the added attraction of having lots of horse lore in it, thus also making it appealing to lovers of horses.
This is a well-written story that is compelling and fun to read. It is of value to young women on the cusp of their mature lives. It delivers both good entertainment and worthy illuminations–the kind of book I like to recommend.